The huge balls of fire that enveloped the clouds of Jeddah during the second Free Practice session of the 2022 Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix was the first sign of trouble. This was in a weekend that had been once again overshadowed by the talks of the human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia.
At a time when the world was preoccupied with the war in Ukraine being waged by Russia, the sky-high flames in Jeddah caused by a raging fire at an oil refinery ten miles from the Jeddah Corniche Circuit was the wakeup call the world needed to recognize that there were wars in other places aside Eastern Europe.
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Shortly after the fire erupted, the Yemen backed terrorist organization Houthis took responsibility for it confirming it had carried out a missile strike on the facility. Houthi’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea confirmed the attacks in a televised address saying the group attacked Aramco’s facilities with missiles and the Ras Tanura and Rabigh refineries with drones.
In 2015, Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi called for military support from the international community after he was ousted by the Houthi movement and this call birthed the Saudi Arabia- led coalition. A movement that was tasked with helping the Hadi led government defeat the Houthi Rebels.
It has been seven years since the Saudi Arabia led coalition began offensives against the Houthi
controlled parts of Yemen and hundreds of thousands of casualties have been recorded with no major headway by both parties. The UN has also described the war as one that has reached the level of a “humanitarian disaster” or “humanitarian catastrophe.”
The Houthi’s attack on the Aramco refinery in Jeddah had one aim for the weekend; to remind the world that the Houthis were still embroiled in a war with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The strategic hits on facilities around Jeddah on an F1 weekend was the perfect opportunity to draw attention to the conflict.
While the fire raged on, the paddock went into a frenzy. Rumors made rounds about drivers not being comfortable about racing that weekend. A meeting between drivers, F1 authorities and team principals with lots of breaks, goings and comings lasted over four hours.
As F1 fans waited upon the outcome of that meeting, attention briefly shifted from the war in Ukraine. Jeddah, the Saudi-Yemen war, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen all became the center of conversation.
Formula 1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali spoke to reporters after a meeting with drivers, teams, and local authorities at the race circuit “We have received total assurance that the country’s safety is first.”
Mercedes Team Boss Toto Wolff also said, “The safest place you can be right now in Jeddah is this race circuit.”
The Saudi Motorsport Co, which promotes the race also acknowledged the attack but said the “race
weekend schedule will continue as planned.
“We remain in direct contact with Saudi security authorities, as well as F1 and the FIA to ensure all
necessary security and safety measures.”
They further said, “The safety and security of all our guests continue to be our main priority.”
Interestingly, while TSM struggled to assure the teams of their safety; A Saudi-led coalition fighting
Houthi rebels launched an offensive in Yemen killing eight people. The coalition said it targeted drones that were being prepared at the ports of Hodiedah and Saleef, according to state-run news agency Saudi Press Agency.
The next morning Houthi rebels announced a cease fire, and the race was held.
Russia launched a war in Ukraine and got the F1 race deal canceled but it does look like a different rule for the Saudis.
The big question here is whether the drivers were informed about the possibility of these strikes
happening in Jeddah. Did they have prior knowledge of the extent of the complexities of the conflict? Would they be locked in a four-hour battle of talks if there was prior knowledge of contingency plans? When F1 raced there last December, it portrayed itself as a peaceful circuit. Why did the Houthis who chose not to strike there last year decide to do that this time?
Last year when F1 visited Jeddah, the conversation was about human rights issues. This year those
issues are still on the front burner but also combined by an ongoing war between Saudi and one of its neighbouring countries.
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton reacted to the human rights condition in Saudi just before the race saying: “There is not a lot I can say that will make any difference. It’s mind-blowing to hear the stories. I’ve heard there is a letter been sent to me from a 14-year-old on death row. When you’re 14you don’t know what the hell you’re doing in life.”
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Hamilton was referring an Abdullah al-Howaiti who was 14 when he was arrested in 2017. Abdullah was sentenced to death at 17.
Hamilton continued, “But we don’t decide where we go [to race]. I think we do have an opportunity to try; we are duty bound to try and do what we can while we’re here.”
Defending Champion Red Bull’s Max Verstappen also voiced the opinions of other drivers after winning the race on Sunday. “We had a lot of guarantees that of course it would be safe but after this weekend all the drivers together, we will speak with F1 and the team bosses to see what is happening for the future”.
With new peace talks ongoing between Ukraine and Russia, attention has shifted from the horror that was witnessed in Jeddah. A two month long peace period has also been agreed between the Saudis and the Houthis.
The main question seems to be whether F1 would return to the Jeddah circuit next season and this could be largely dependent on the outcome of the truce and peace talks.
Also, was prior history and in-depth awareness about the complexities of Saudi-Yemen war disclosed to the F1 community before they set foot in Jeddah in the first place?
While so many fans and drivers celebrate the announcement of a Saturday Night Race in Las Vegas from 2023, it is also important that F1 authorities give proper accountability about the events that took place in Jeddah last Saturday and disclose the frameworks to be put in place to forestall a reoccurrence in the sport.